'My team and I have no confidence or trust in this building,' Sheriff Rick Staly said during a July 16 County Commission workshop.
An expert hired by Flagler County to test the Sheriff's Operations Center — which employees believe has been making them sick — has determined that the county-owned building is essentially safe. But Sheriff's Office employees aren't satisfied, and County Commissioners are starting to talk about the possibility of tearing down the building and starting over.
In a County Commission workshop about the building the morning of July 16, County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said the county and the employees are part of one team, but Sheriff Rick Staly and Sheriff's Office employees said they aren't prepared to send employees back in to the building until they're sure it's safe.
They haven't had a chance to review the full report — which came out on July 12 and is more than 1,700 pages long — and want their own expert to check the building.
More than 30 employees have filed worker's compensation claims related to the building, reporting rashes, hives and breathing difficulties. The building was built atop the site of the old Memorial Hospital on State Road 100, and employees were moved into it in 2015. All have now been evacuated. One employee spoke about sleeping covered in ice packs because of pain from the rashes. Others said that every time they left the building, their symptoms improved and then recurred when they returned to it.
The employees have hired legal counsel to represent them in claims against the Sheriff's Office's workers compensation carrier, which has not accepted their claims. But their attorney, Geoff Bichler, also accused County Attorney Al Hadeed during the workshop of wanting to return employees to a sick building and threatened that employees could decide to file a civil negligence suit rather than proceed with worker's compensation claims.
Sheriff speaks out
Staly began his comments before the commission July 16 by saying he wasn't there to point fingers and noting that he is leading "more than 300 dedicated employees that just want to come to work and serve our community."
"My hypothesis is this: Something is wrong with the building, and we have not discovered it yet."
— Sheriff Rick Staly
But, he said, "You are saying the building is fine and it's OK to move back in. I say, slow down. Not so fast. The Sheriff's Office must take our time to fully review the report with expert, independent guidance that I will be hiring."
He said he'd gotten the impression that the investigation had been rushed.
"An investigation should never be rushed, and it appears to me this one has been," he said. "My hypothesis is this: Something is wrong with the building, and we have not discovered it yet."
He also wasn't satisfied that the county had proved that old, rotten wood in the building had actually been removed rather than — as he said a contractor's employee had told him — simply covered up with new plywood. He wanted to have the drywall removed in places to check. He also wanted testing to see "what’s lurking under the duct work.”
Staly added that years ago, Seminole County had issues with employees getting sick in a Sheriff's Office building, and after testing showed nothing out of the ordinary, the employees ultimately tore out the drywall and found it "infested" with mold.
Addressing a statement by County Attorney Al Hadeed that the Sheriff's Office employees had made "a conscious decision ... not to submit" their medical records for review, Staly said, "I don’t believe there was purposed delay. We now have four attorneys involved … and it just takes time." Employees are now submitting them, he said.
"I will never accept this building until this issue is proven or disproven," Staly said. "Frankly, my team and I have no confidence or trust in this building."
Rashes and breathing difficulties
Sheriff's Office Detective Gabe Fuentes said he didn't trust the county's testing and noted that the county administrator, Craig Coffey, had suggested it be ready for employees to return soon after July 25.
"It’s obvious that there’s an issue with the building," Fuentes said. As to the notion that employees had been resistant to turning over medical records, he said, "The picture that we’re not cooperating is ridiculous, and it’s not right to be painted that way." (Hadeed said later during the workshop, "We now have a better understanding of why (the records) didn’t come.")
Fuentes concluded, "Obviously, something is going on and we don’t have an answer for it. ... If you guys think the building’s fine, are you willing to occupy the building?"
Another detective, Elizabeth Conrad, said employees had problems much more extensive than rashes. "That is only a part of what’s wrong with us," she said. She said employees' immune systems have been "destroyed" and that their lymphatic systems have gone "haywire."
"I’m 45 years old," she said. "I have been tough. I have never been sick, ever." Then she moved into the building in late 2015, and by March 2016, she was seeing a dermatologist for an unexplained itch which the doctor said was fungal, she said.
"It’s destroying out bodies," she said. "I have made unbelievable improvements since I left that building."
Detective Joe Costello didn't see the unity that Hansen had spoken of at the opening of the meeting.
"I question whether we're truly working together here, even more so than I did before," he said. "Honestly, coming from me, this sounds like pomp and circumstance."
Commissioners consider options — including tearing down the building
County commissioners repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the Sheriff's Office employees and their health.
"The only team I’m on is the citizens of Flagler County team," O'Brien said. "For me nothing is off the table, whether it’s building repairs, building replacement, management changes — whatever we have to do, whatever the right thing is to do for the citizens in my judgement, is what I'm going to advocate for."
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen agreed with the sheriff about the necessity of testing under the drywall, where it meets the roof, for mold.
McLaughlin said he considered any announcement of a move-in date for the building "premature and ill-advised."
He noted that he'd also suggested that the county have the Centers for Disease Control review the work of ESi and that that has been arranged: The CDC will do so for no cost.
"We’re trying to figure this thing out. ... And any activity that says that one team is pitted against the other is false and counterproductive," McLaughlin said. "Let's get to the bottom of these illnesses and get these folks fixed up."
Hansen said it was clear to him that "people are getting sick, and that's unacceptable. ... We’re going to find what's wrong and fix it. And if fixing it means tear the building down, that’s what we’re gonna do."
At this point, Hadeed said, the county is "in a holding pattern" as it prepares to let the expert chosen by the Sheriffs' Office and its union develop a testing protocol for the building.